For something different, Julia and I decided to drive up after she got off work on Friday and spend New Years Eve in the Yaak. If you are wondering where the hell that is, it’s a little valley in the Cabinet Mountains in the upper northwest corner of Montana, with a river and a town named after it.
Mapquest said it would be about a 4.5 hour drive. It ended up taking us seven hours to get there, though 30-45 minutes of that was for a lunch stop in Ronan to feast on burgers from Lynn’s Drive-In. I used to live in Ronan; I took these shots of the Mission Mountains just south of the town proper; the peak you see is the highest point, called McDonald Peak.
It took so long because the roads were pretty bad. We had gotten an arctic blast of weather in the days leading up to the year’s end, and while it was just sunny and gorgeous (as you can see) it was very cold and the roads were still covered in snow and ice. They weren’t suicidally bad, mind you, one just had to be cautious. I kind of enjoy that kind of driving. In many ways, needing to be so mindful on questionable terrain seems a bit safer to me than blasting along at 80+ on a highway getting road-hypnotized.
At Kalispell we turned west on Highway 2. As the sun started going down that slowed us a bit too. This is really a beautiful stretch of highway, and as night falls the biggest concern is large animals in the road. I took this shot at sunset while I drove.
Little did I know, one of the trip highlights was about to occur. If you look at the white slope just to the right of the road ahead, a rare opportunity was lurking there. As we passed and I set my camera aside, Julia suddenly turned in her seat and shouted, “A lynx! That was lynx back there!” Now that is as rare a critter as one can see out here. Could have been a lynx, might have been a bobcat . . . but either way, it’s a rare sight. And of course I didn’t see it. But I’m glad she did. This is what one looks like, for those who wonder:
Finally we arrived at our destination, the Yaak River Lodge. We stayed in the Elk Suite.
This is Zippy, the stuffed badger just inside the front door.
Here is an image that crystallizes what I think of when I think of winter in the Yaak.
So why would I have an image about this place at all? I, like many people, learned of this area via the writings of author Rick Bass, primarily in his 1991 work called Winter – Notes from Montana. He’s written some other books about the area, and has been a tireless activist toward preserving its wilderness status. I reread Winter in preparation for the trip, just to familiarize myself again to see how it has changed since Bass arrived in the late 80s. It’s still remote, but the change is pretty drastic. From the maintained highway leading there, and the power lines, it was clear it was much different. I was curious to know what kind of people live here now, though, and how they differed from the characters in Bass’s early book. We headed out to the Yaak River Tavern for their New Year’s festivities to see. Here’s a picture of the place the next morning.
We had a good time. There were a lot of people there, and a live band playing country and bluegrass, and some food spread out on a big table. Everyone we talked to was friendly (the real estate woman we were introduced to rolled her eyes when Gary, the guy from the lodge, told her we’d heard of the Yaak from reading Rick Bass, and said, “Well, we don’t believe all of this place should be wilderness, we believe we should be able to use some of it too!”), but the crowd was not really what I expected. There weren’t any ruffians there, the people were surprisingly, as Julia remarked, genteel. I asked Gary how people make their living since there isn’t any real work anymore with logging in the tank, and he said “most of the husbands travel for work.” So the impression I was left with is that these are folks who get their money elsewhere but choose to live in this beautiful place. I don’t begrudge them that at all, I was just expecting it to be a little more, I don’t know, outlaw. I expected the ban on smoking to be eschewed, I thought there would be a collection of bearded guys who looked like they’d been out in the woods for weeks on end (saw a couple of those types in Libby on the way up), etc. But it wasn’t that.
Anyway, here’s the arrival of midnight inside the tavern. The bulk of the crowd was still outside watching fireworks. The annoying blower of the noisemaker is my blushing bride.
Across the street is the Dirty Shame Saloon. That is the place where Bass and his girlfriend would spend time with the other people who inhabited the Yaak in the 80s, watching football on a tiny screen with the generator running, and eating burgers and drinking beer.
I asked Gary why all the action was at the Yaak River Tavern instead of the Dirty Shame, and he laughed. He said the Dirty Shame has always had a reputation as a rough place, and kind of a biker bar, but that a few years ago it was purchased by Christians who had instituted a two-drink maximum, and made it all cozy. As a result, the meat of its reputation had been scrubbed away. That should change though, as apparently they are selling out.
The next morning we had breakfast and headed out. For the trip home I turned south on Highway 56, which links up with Highway 200 about 45 miles west of Thompson Falls. That stretch of 56 was about the most beautiful drive I’ve ever undertaken. I should have taken pictures, but I really didn’t think it would capture the beauty. It was bright and sunny, with the trees and landscape heavy under snow. Animal tracks were everywhere. The Bull River ran along the highway. It was breathtaking. Julia kept dozing off, and there was little traffic, so it felt like I had it all to myself. Calling it a “winter wonderland” doesn’t do it justice. I feel like I want to go back right now!
Once we hit 200 before long we weren’t crowded by mountains and trees any longer, and the skies clouded up a bit. The highway was crowded at times, however, by herds of these critters.
All told, we probably saw a couple hundred bighorns. It’s a hazard, but there are plenty of warning signs.
It was a great trip, if a little brief. I’m looking forward to getting back up in the Yaak during the summer time. The country we passed through is as beautiful as anywhere in the world, and I’m reminded again how lucky I am to live here. It’s simply magnificent.